The speaker for Le Moyne’s 68th undergraduate commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 20 will be literacy pioneer, Ruth Johnson Colvin, a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the ceremony, Colvin will receive an honorary degree, as will two other individuals – Oren Lyons, an activist for indigenous and environmental justice, and Sean Kirst, an award-winning journalist and author. Read stories about her selection as the 2018 speaker on Spectrum News
Colvin is the founder of the non-profit organization ProLiteracy Worldwide, previously known as Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), which was formed in Syracuse in 1962. ProLiteracy supports programs that help adults learn to read and write, and is the largest organization of its type in the country, with over 1,000 member programs in the U.S. as well as a presence in 25 countries worldwide.
Born on Dec. 16, 1916 in Chicago, Colvin received a two-year degree in business from Thornton Junior College in Harvey, Ill. in 1936, attended Moser Business College and Northwestern University, and also earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business from Syracuse University in 1959. In the early 1960s, she discovered that Syracuse had more than 11,000 people functionally illiterate and took steps to combat this. Before forming LVA, she developed tutor training manuals to aid volunteers in this endeavor, and they are still considered authoritative sources for the purpose of training basic literacy to adults. Literacy Volunteers of America was officially chartered in 1967. She created the ‘English as a Second Language’ training program and helped to found ‘The National Coalition for Literacy’ in the following years to increase public awareness of this issue.
Over the past 20 years, she has aided with training in African countries, such as Swaziland and Zambia, and formed some of the only literacy programs in those nations. In 2002, Literacy Volunteers merged with a similar organization, Laubach Literacy International, to form, what is now known as, ProLiteracy Worldwide. There are currently more than 100,000 volunteers and students connected to this organization, including Ruth herself who, at the age of 101, still volunteers in U.S. and abroad.
In December 2006, Colvin was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush to honor her life’s work. She has published nine books, received more than 30 awards and honors for her efforts, and received seven honorary doctorates. Other notable awards include the Women’s Day National Award, the President’s Volunteers Action Award and the Rotarian International Harris Award. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In addition to Colvin, also receiving a Doctor of Humane Letters Honorary Degree will be:
Oren Lyons – A member of the Onondaga and Seneca nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Lyons is an activist for indigenous and environmental justice, working with communities around the world. As a Faithkeeper, he upholds the history and traditions of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga and Seneca. Oren often addresses modern-day conflicts by sharing traditional views on the law of nature.
Lyons served in the United States Army before receiving an athletic scholarship to Syracuse University, graduating from the College of Fine Arts in 1958. A lifelong lacrosse player, he was an All-American at Syracuse. Upon graduation, he pursued a career in commercial art in New York City, becoming the Art and Planning Director of Norcross Greeting Cards, while also exhibiting his own paintings during this time. In 1970, Lyons returned to Onondaga to be closer to his cultural heritage.
In the 1960s, Lyons joined the Red Power movement and the Unity Caravan, which traveled through Indian country to foster dialogue about traditional tribal values. In 1972, he was a leader in the Trail of Broken Treaties, a caravan to Washington D.C. to convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs to honor its treaties with Native American tribes. In 1977, Lyons helped create the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth at a meeting in Montana, which has since gathered annually at a different site in Indian country. In 1977, he also was part of the Haudenosaunee delegation to the first World Conference on Racism.
For many years he has taken part in the meetings in Geneva of Indigenous Peoples of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, and helped to establish the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. In 1992 he addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations, where he opened the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. He appeared in Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary "The 11th Hour" in 2007. He is the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the National Audubon Society's Audubon Medal, the Earth Day International Award of the United Nations, and the Elder and Wiser Award of the Rosa Parks Institute for Human Rights. Lyons serves on the board of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and is board chairman of Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations.
Sean Kirst - A public speaker, author, and award-winning journalist, Kirst uses the power of strong writing to make transformative contributions in his community. After graduating from SUNY Fredonia with a degree in English in 1981, he wrote for The Niagara Gazette and Rochester's City Newspaper. Then, in 1991, he wrote his first sports column for the Syracuse Post-Standard, transitioning five years later to working in news, at both a regional and national level. Through all these roles, Sean’s work has always been guided by the firm belief that “writing opens doors that would otherwise be shut. It’s life changing.”
This real possibility for change has also fueled his career as a columnist; Kirst has dedicated much of his career to passionately advocating for positive change in Upstate New York. Just one example includes his writings about the trash problem along Syracuse’s interstates. Today, thanks largely to Kirst’s column, the pollution receives high-profile civic attention. His work as a columnist has led to numerous awards including a U.S. Department of Justice Award for Sensitivity to Victims of Violent Crime (1998), The Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Writing (2009), and the New York State Associated Press Association first place Award for Column Writing (2014). In 2016, he published “The Soul of Central New York: Syracuse Stories."